Stephen Panus, president of The Jockey Club’s media ventures and America’s Best Racing, endured every parent’s nightmare when his 16-year-old son Jake was killed in a car accident on Block Island in Rhode Island last summer.
I’ve been to Block Island many times and think of it as a natural place where the real world sits down and shuts up and simplicity steers the boat. There is one gas station on Block Island, one liquor store, one grocery store, no chain stores (well, one if you count Ben and Jerry’s but it’s closed), no road bigger than a two-laner, quirky traditions like painting Painted Rock and searching for glass orbs. There are beaches, hiking trails, cliffs, restaurants, boats, lighthouses, waves, wind, seals, fish, deer, birds of every shape and size but no skunks or foxes or squirrels, sunrises and sunsets that ought to be in movies and peace and hope and optimism.
Unless your child died there. I can’t imagine the Panus family’s pain, especially at a location so many consider an escape, but I admire the responses to Jake’s death with just as much force. The Panuses aren't crushed, they aren't languishing, they're doing things.
The family created the Jake Panus Memorial Scholarship, which provides annual post-secondary education financial assistance to children from Red Shirt Table on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Oglala Lakota County, South Dakota. The scholarship goes to students who graduate from Red Cloud High School and who pursue a post-secondary education and desire to authentically help and serve others. This scholarship fund was created in partnership with the Southport Congregational Church, Jake’s spiritual home, in Connecticut. More than $105,000 has been raised.
And now comes Hot Rod Charlie and the #RunningForJake campaign to raise money for the Jake Panus Walk-on Football Endowed Scholarship at the University of South Carolina as the 147th Kentucky Derby approaches Saturday. Jake planned to attend South Carolina, following his father’s footsteps, and was a diehard fan of the university’s football team. Hot Rod Charlie’s trainer Doug O’Neill reached out with an offer to help the cause by creating a horse blanket bearing the South Carolina logo.
“While it’s emotionally draining for me, I am doing it all to honor Jake and to help raise funding which will directly impact children; just like Jake always did,” wrote Stephen Panus via email. “This story has a myriad of angles including the story of an authentic, magnetic, kind and caring 16-year-old boy from Fairfield, Conn. who had a dream, a college football connection x2, the Kentucky Derby and my healing journey from a personal tragedy.”
In partnership with South Carolina football coach Shane Beamer and the school athletic department, the scholarshp was established to provide annual financial assistance for a walk-on football player who earns an athletic scholarship and contributes toward the success of the football team, the university and the community at large.
“It means the world to us knowing that the scholarship will forever inspire walk-on football players and honor Jake's spirit, leadership, light, and love,” Panus wrote. “Most importantly, the scholarship allows Jake to achieve in spirit what he intended to do while here with us: attend the University of South Carolina.”
Beamer hopes to see the scholarship incentivize walk-on football players to participate – and to dream.
“I was a walk-on. Those guys are partial to me,” Beamer said. “We [are intent] about trying to find guys and sell them on what a fantastic opportunity this is at Carolina. That will always be a critical aspect of this program; get guys in here as walk-ons, develop them as players and student-athletes and get them on the field.”
Stephen Panus said his son would love the idea.
“Jake identified with the underdog,” he wrote. “In fact, he relished the role. While a natural leader, Jake epitomized the fighting Gamecock spirit and threw himself fully into whatever he committed to.”
Support has thus far brought in nearly $75,000 for the fund, with Hot Rod Charlie helping push the concept even further. The son of Oxbow, owned by Roadrunner Racing, Boat Racing and Bill Strauss, won the Louisiana Derby in March after breaking his maiden and placing second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in the final two starts of his 2-year-old campaign.